Last Sunday when I preached I had just barely heard the news about the Orlando massacre. I didn’t know anything except that another mass shooting had occurred, this time targeting LGBTQ people. In the past week I have attended a vigil, listened to Presidential candidates and make speeches about terrorism, hatred, and gun control, spent hours listening to news reporters discuss the details, and reflected on my own response. I've also spent time in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which continues to speak with almost shocking relevance to this situation. Last week Paul helped us explore how to cultivate the internal changes in our spirits that catch us up with the changes in the laws outside. Today’s passage focuses on what needs to happen to create a truly human society.
Missionaries had come into Galatia telling people that they had to keep all the Jewish laws pertaining to Gentiles, including circumcision. Paul considered this both an intrusion and a rejection of the essence of the gospel that he had proclaimed. Gentiles did not have to become culturally Jewish before they could become Christians. Insider/outsider relationships are something people create, not something inherent to life or willed by God. The true reality about life is that we’re all inextricably connected to one another, and that the highest and best part of religion always reveals that.
We’ve talked about our interconnectedness before… many times. But in this crazy and dangerous political time we are living in, when the message about how disconnected we are is being shouted so loudly and frequently, I want to give us as many tools as possible to speak the truth in the midst of all the crazy-making things that are being said. The stakes are high. They always have been. Paul knew that. And in today’s passage, he dared to speak beyond what even he could understand: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That may be the most radical thing Paul ever said.
And he roots it in three truths about unity: first, unity is rooted in the graceful nature of God; second, it emerges out of our baptism rather than from something we have to add to our faith; and finally, it has been true from the very foundation of our faith tradition in Abraham and Sarah.
When our identity is rooted in God’s grace, we can be part of communities that reflect the image of God. Paul writes, “You are all children of God through faith.” The name for God revealed to Moses was, “I am who I am.” How easily we turn that into, “I should be who I should be”, or “As soon as you stop being like you are you will become someone acceptable to God”, or “Eventually I will become who I should be”, or “Who you are is less than who I am”, or “Who I am is less than who you are.” Whenever we say any of this to ourselves or to others - we are effectively erasing the image of God, and destroying the possibility of true, human community.
When we understand that our unity emerges out of our baptism it is clear that whenever we put conditions on belovedness we weaken our humanness and loosen the bonds of community. Today that means that whenever we insist that women act like men before they can serve as leaders in the church, we grow weaker. Whenever we require that immigrants be legal before they can be our neighbors, we grow weaker. Whenever we communicate to gay people that they need to be either straight or celibate before they are acceptable to God, we grow weaker.
Yet, that is precisely what so much religion does. The best expressions of religious traditions going all the way back to Abraham and Sarah affirm the worth of every individual. But it has often been only a small minority that has grasped that. In Galatians Paul puts two expressions of religion side-by-side so we can observe this difference. One version has a system of boundary markers that separate “clean” from “unclean” human types. I’m calling that “little ‘t’ truth.” The other version asks the rhetorical question as to whether it is lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill. I call that “Big ‘T’ Truth.” One version establishes one group fundamentally distinct from others because God chose them, thereby justifying all kinds of unequal treatment under the law. The other version questions any law that puts up walls between groups of people, or makes one group better than another.
Obviously which version we follow makes a huge difference. Paul’s version questions many ways we order our lives today:
- Why is it acceptable that poor African Americans and Latinos live in substandard housing and dangerous neighborhoods with failing educations systems that most of us would never tolerate?
- Why is it acceptable that when people from all backgrounds are hired for the same jobs, women, African Americans and immigrants are consistently undercompensated in relation to their white male counterparts?
- Why is it that persistent inequities make life on earth hell for some with darker skin and thicker accents, while others feel entitled to heaven?
Some of us have grown up managing to hold on to both versions of religion. I spoke with someone who shared his experience of coming out as a gay man. He had grown up in a family and a church that taught him that his attraction to men was offensive to God and shameful for himself. Since his family was very prominent in his church, he was held up as a model child, and had to behave according to the standards they established. He bought into the worldview, and felt the sting of shame and alienation over his same-sex attraction. The fear of rejection led him to hide who he really was for decades.
What amazed and inspired me was that through all of that shame and fear, he never lost the sense that God welcomed and loved him as he was. Somehow he was able to hold onto both the shame-based religion of his family and church – little ‘t’ truth – and the view of a welcoming God that his soul revealed to him – Big ‘T’ truth. The process of coming out is now allowing him to spiritually integrate the different parts of his world. Little by little, the shame and fear are being squeezed out, as he is able to bring more and more of himself into the presence of the welcoming God he knew all along. Not every gay person is so blessed. Not every man, woman, Jew, Gentile, laborer or boss is able to hang on to the truth of a welcoming God in the midst of discrimination. I haven’t always been able to hang on to that truth. You probably haven’t been either. But reality is reality, whether we can see it or not. Paul managed to squeeze out the shame and fear and clearly see the welcoming God. He revealed that God dramatically and decisively to the world.
But he didn’t start out with a welcoming God. He had such a stern view of God that he persecuted Christians for proclaiming such a welcoming God, who appeared reckless, irresponsible and dangerous to the early Paul. Paul had to get literally knocked off his high horse in order to realize that the God he was calling reckless and irresponsible was the God that his soul had known from the beginning, just as my friend has been realizing. The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Gentile woman who dared to ask for the crumbs that fall from the table reveals that even Jesus had to learn the Big T truth of how welcoming God is. Thank God, Jesus was open to discover this truth, despite the social pressure to believe the contrary.
Paul kept growing into this truth over the course of his life. That's why some things that Paul wrote make us so angry. One voice says, “there is no longer male and female” while another says, “women should be silent in the churches.” (I Cor. 14:34-35) In one voice Paul says, “there is no longer slave or free”, while in another he is alleged to say, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” (Eph. 6:5) Scholars concluded decades ago that “the later letters of Paul were actually products of the early church that functioned to dilute Paul’s egalitarian message and transform him into something more acceptable. Two contemporary theologians – Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg – argue there are actually “Three Pauls” in the New Testament: “The Radical Paul, “The Conservative Paul,” and “The Reactionary Paul.” (The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Vision, by Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan) We could pretend this wasn’t true; but it would just serve to keep people from trusting our message.
We need to allow our own understanding of faith to grow, even beyond what the Bible says. When Paul writes, “There is no longer…” I want to add, “and there never was in reality.” And I need to go ahead and add it. It takes some of us a long time to recognize reality through the false interpretations we’re taught along the way. So, like Paul, we need to keep pushing our understanding of the scriptures beyond what we’ve allowed them to say.
How will you respond to the big “T” Truth of your life as you hold it alongside the little “t” truth of your prior understandings of the scriptures, or of religion? That may be the real issue in determining whether you are “slave” or “free.”